Life Lessons at the School of Life

“Lost for words, copywriter ditches job and calls it a day.”

I wrote this mock headline as part of a wonderful class – How to Stay Calm – at the School of Life in Melbourne. The exercise was to coin a headline summarising a situation where we lost our cool and did more than just feel our anger, we acted upon it.

For those who haven’t come across it before, the School of Life was started by philosopher, TV presenter and author Alan de Botton and has its headquarters in London. To quote from their website: The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm and how better to understand and, where necessary change, the world.

Melbourne’s School of Life is located at the Spencer St end of Bourke St and has a small cafe framed by natural wood bookshelves stacked with everything from the classics and contemporary literature to self-help, philosophy and the humanities. The lecture-style classroom leads off the cafe and is also book-lined, intimate and inviting.

Copyright: School of Life

Copyright: School of Life

For three hours last Wednesday Elise Bialylew, founder of Mindful in May (www.mindfulinmay.org), led us in a wonderfully rich discussion drawing on the works of some of the great philosophers and thinkers from Kierkegaard to Buddha as well as contemporary thinkers, psychologists, neuroscientists, futurists and researchers.

I’ve explored all sorts of therapies, attended different types of retreats and experimented with various styles of meditation and ways to stay balanced, but there’s always more to learn and re-learn. It’s not as if we were taught how to manage or relate to our emotions at school or university, at least not when I was in the education system. Elise reminded us that emotional wellbeing is a skill and takes practice just like a sport. So, as well as going to the gym, we need to make time for training our minds.

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Emerging research shows that mindfulness – training our minds to focus on one thing at a time and staying in the present moment – can actually develop our pre-frontal cortex. This is heartening as our brains haven’t kept up with the pace of change and evolved to cope with the demands of modern life. But a little mind training can help update the software. Want to know more? Try reading Daniel Siegel’s The Mindful Brain or do what I did and download some guided meditations onto my phone. I love guided meditations as I find it much easier to still my mind and focus.

During the class we also reflected on what it is to be human, and the fears that we all share. According to Buddhism, mankind’s five greatest fears are: fear of death; fear of illness; fear of losing your mind; fear of loss of livelihood; and fear of public speaking. Who hasn’t experienced one or all of those at some stage in their life?

Given our inherent human vulnerability – it’s time we learnt to listen to the likes of researcher and author Brené Brown who writes that owning our vulnerability can be a strength and actually connects us to others – the last part of the class focused on five key prescriptions for living. (If you’ve not yet discovered Brené Brown, I highly recommend one of her TEDTalks http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame?language=en) –

The Five Prescriptions

1. Acceptance – survival stories – Elise recounted the story of a shipwreck survivor entitled the Sinking of the Trashman which is part of a collection of extraordinary stories called The Moth (more about the Moth in a future blog). What emerged from this tale of survival was a belief in a higher power, a conscious choice of focus (expressed as a sense of wonder at the sky, the stars etc), a talisman (she threw a black pearl into the sea as kind of offering), a determination to focus on positive memories even in the face of death (two crew members were eaten by sharks), a great deal of resilience and lots of common sense practicality; for example, she used seaweed for insulation.

2. Discernment – mindful awareness – a recent study showed that five hours of mindfulness actually changed the body’s genetic expression and can help with inflammation and chronic pain. What’s more, it can even boost production of an enzyme that protects against ageing. Forget botox and collagen…

3. Surrender to the Ascetic or Aesthetic – perhaps losing oneself in nature or becoming absorbed in a work of art.

4. Compassion – empathy and identifying with others – which can sometimes mean simply holding the space for another person rather than trying to fix them. But equally important – and it’s not valued in our culture – is self-compassion. How can be kind to others when we insist on beating ourselves up and criticising ourselves?

5. Communion and Connection –this is about connecting to others. I’m reminded of that famous John Donne poem – ‘No Man is an Island’. Where would we without friends and community?

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

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